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...


Top 10 CDs of 2011

It’s always a fun challenge putting together the WVRockscene Top 10 CDs at the end of the year. But in 2011, it definitely wasn’t easy.

From the many EPs that came out, to rock solid releases and stellar concept records, 2011 was packed with great music from local (and regional) bands. Since we started doing this thing here in 2008, there has not been a better year to be following West Virginia bands.

Just as a quick introduction to the hard fast rules and metrics to selecting the illustrious WVRockscene Top 10: there are no hard fast rules. Basically it’s how much I like the songs + production value divided by the number of songs. Many bands put out great EPs this year, but more songs = more chance of something being a “great record” or something like that.

And production -- having help in the studio is always a plus. But then there’s killer garage/punk rock stuff and more lo-fi type recordings that, as long as the songs rock, might come in ahead of overproduced type stuff. ‘Nuff said there.

One big thing I’ve noticed with this year’s batch of releases is the almost gravitational pull of great regional releases into the West Virginia rock scene.

Some Morgantown area dudes might move to Pittsburgh, and still either play shows here or have some stamp or influence on “the scene” or whatever. Then there’s nearby cities, like, say, Athens, Ohio, and Lexington, Kentucky. But, as long as a particular band, be it from Pittsburgh, Lexington, or Athens, plays a few West Virginia shows in a year, in addition to having state residents or natives in the band, they should be included in the top 10, right? I think so.

Another thing that’s been entirely promising to witness is bands getting their music out on bandcamp sites. There were all kinds of cool EPs that came out in 2011. Up in Morgantown, Brian Spragg’s bands (Pat Pat/Single Dads) released four EPs, two apiece from each respective unit, this, in addition to his work as an engineer, helping other cool bands record. It’s a challenge just to keep up with all the music being released, and I personally would rather hear short EPs once or twice a year than wait two years for a band to get a full-length out.

And again, this is more a “my own favorite releases” top 10. Some listeners and fans might disagree and that’s cool. More than a competition, this is more a celebration of the great bands that got their music out this year.

So without further ado...

10. Sasha Colette and the Magnolias: Leave It Alone

The young Eastern Kentucky songstress brought her Magnolias into Bud Carroll’s Trackside Studio, had him join in on guitar and pedal steel, and walked out with eight songs worth of rockin’, bluesy folk and Americana. Longtime fans of Colette’s sweet, soulful voice, catchy, alternately poetic and lovelorn bar ballads were rightfully stoked to get this back around April, and likely weren’t let down.

Although only eight songs, with standout tracks like “Sacrifice,” “Rock of Ages,” “Victory,” and the most awesome “Mercy Moment,” evoking a Janis Joplin-Led Zeppelin combination with Carroll on guitar, Leave It Alone rightfully takes its place in the top 10, and Colette fans can look forward to the follow-up in January of 2012.

Related: Sasha Colette can’t ‘Leave It Alone’ (Feb. Gazette article)


9. Prison Book Club (self-titled)

Prison Book Club is a band that never got the memo that said side projects are to be relegated to second-tier status. And this is saying something considering that The Fox Hunt’s John Miller and The Demon Beat’s Adam Meisterhans and Tucker Riggleman, with Andrew Ford on drums and Morgantown’s Billy Matheny sitting in on this sophomore effort, continue to make fans by steady touring of their own.

With a more southern rock and alt-country flavor than what you’ll hear from The Fox Hunt or The Demon Beat, on this 10-song August release, with Miller’s instantly recognizable country tough voice, still sharing the singing and songwriting with Riggleman and with Meisterhans’ guitar (and studio) work, Prison Book Club both expanded their own sound and continued to prove that side bands don’t always suck.

Standout tracks: “Do As I Say,” “Too Much Livin’,” “Six Pack,” “Sons of Heaven,” “Coming Down”

Related: Dave Mistich’s live PBC review from June, and his review of the new Prison Book Club CD from Graffiti Magazine

8. J. Marinelli: Stone-Age Kicks Vol. 3

If you missed the first two volumes of the Morgantown native’s (not always) angry one-man band’s cover series, you can jump right in and fall in love with his own versions of the Ramones’ “Judy Is a Punk,” Guided by Voices’ “The Gold Heart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” and my own favorite, “And Then He Kissed Me.”

Just as the Ramones covered so many songs and made them their own, Marinelli, on the Stone Age Kicks series, takes his favorites, puts his own sonic stamp on them and simultaneously turns his fans onto bands they might not have been into. Two of my favorite songs on the release, “Virginia Plain” (Roxy Music) and “Flying Pizza” (Swearing at Motorists) are good examples of this for me.

As Marinelli has followed up on 2007’s Keep It Fake and last year’s most awesome Pre-Emptive Skankery Sessions, he’s broadened his own sonic palette from caveman guitar and maximum stomp and swing with banjo, stripped down vocals and just a softer side overall, still keeping things weird. It’s been ages it seems since I bought his Pity the Party EP at Budget, and I’d like to think Marinelli fans can look forward to his own version of The Emergency’s “I’m Not Angry” on volume four.

Is it wrong to have a CD of cover songs in the top 10? If it’s wrong, then I don’t wanna be right.

7. Rozwell Kid: The Rozwell Kid LP

I can honestly say here that if you liked Jude Universer’s 2009 release Lingering Blue, you’ll love Jordan Hudkins’ now renamed project Rozwell Kid. The Demon Beat’s drummer again steps out to front his own rock band, and this time, with The Demon Beat’s Adam Meisterhans providing lead guitar parts, The Rozwell Kid LP takes you back to your own personal Weezer-Rentals hybrid band.

It really is 1994-ever on this 10-song (complete with a totally 90’s hidden track) effort of raw, catchy, almost always hilarious power pop slacker anthems. And remember: if it’s too loud, turn it down.

Standout tracks: “Rocket,” “Dylan, Don’t Do It,” “My Saturn,” “‘93 Connie & Ronnie,” “Ace Ventura Pt. 3”

6. AC30 (self-titled)

Two years in the making, one Monday at a time, this Huntington power-pop super group met at Bud Carroll’s Trackside Studio, and this September released their 10-song debut, the result of all that work, to awaiting fans.

What was originally a studio project slowly congealed into a live band, as Carroll joined forces with Ian Thornton and Ryan Weaver and welcomed drummer Alex McCoy and guitarist Doug Woodard into the band. Sharing the singing and songwriting on songs like Weaver’s “I’m Free,” Carroll’s “Miss Misery,” and Thornton’s “Sure To Win,” AC30 proved that the best things come to those who wait.

Related: Hanging out and jamming with friends became a regular thing for AC30 (July Herald-Dispatch article), AC30 gets CD release party, columnist’s full attention (Sept. H-D article by Dave Lavender)

5. FOX Japan: Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

The fourth studio release from the brothers Wilmoth and Andrew Slater (“Slater-Wilmoth”) is at once more welcoming, appealing and catchy as a follow-up to last year’s Reenactment, almost making that great record seem almost lo-fi compared to the rich, near-orchestral arrangements on this 12-song November release.

Singer-guitarist Charlie Wilmoth’s irreverent, insightful lyrics, on subjects ranging from the personal/religious to the cultural/political, (just take the first three songs, “Casual Sex,” “On Christmas,” and “Not My Car,” the subtly disguised title track, as fine examples) make FOX Japan one of my favorite bands. Think Talking Heads-meets-The Pixies and you’re kind of close. Released just in time for Christmas, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! has the warm feel of something you’d rock out for the holiday season. Or, any season.

Standout tracks: “Casual Sex,” “Above This City,” “On Christmas,” “Not My Car”

Related: WVRockscene Q&A w/Charlie Wilmoth of FOX Japan

4. The Demon Beat: Bullshit Walks

The fifth release in as many years from these three Shepherdstown dudes is arguably their best. Following up on last year’s eight-“movement” concept record 1956 with 10 songs worth of soulful, bluesy, badass garage rock, incorporating some of the more retro tones from the most recent release, (with all appropriate fuzz and feedback) Adam Meisterhans, Tucker Riggleman and Jordan Hudkins continue to embody not only rock and roll like it used to be, evoking something like The Who (Meisterhans nails Townshend’s windmill guitar live) and The Stooges but embrace a totally DIY aesthetic as well.

Recorded by Meisterhans, released on Riggleman’s Big Bullet Records label and on vinyl in conjunction with Caustic Eye, with artwork again provided by Hudkins, Bullshit Walks only builds on and adds to the band’s impressive discography, and further cements the band as West Virginia’s hardest workers and hardest rockin’ as they are even now in the studio recording new stuff. Total rock stars that don’t seem to give a shit about being rock stars or where they end up on end-of-the-year top 10 type blog posts.

Standout tracks: “Give Me All Your Money,” “Get It,” “Bang,” “Totally Blissed Out,” “I’m Not Really There”

3. Southeast Engine: Canary

Calling Canary, the fourth Misra Records release from the Athens, Ohio-based folk rock four-piece Southeast Engine “rustic” is close, but almost a disservice. Singer-guitarist Adam Remnant, with brother Jesse on bass, drummer Leo DeLuca and oh-by-the-way Morgantown’s Billy Matheny on piano and organ, capture the feel and paint a picture of life in Depression-era Appalachia over 11 “rustic” yet rockin’ songs.

Songs like “Cold Front Blues,” “1933 (The Great Depression),” and the beautiful “Adeline of the Appalachian Mountains” and Canary as a whole remind me of Wilco’s Being There in that it’s deliberately roots-oriented, mainly acoustic-based with great melodies, but not at all minimalist, and is a great concept record to boot without some contrived feel. One of the best records I heard all year.

Related: Southeast Engine w/Todd Burge on Mountain Stage 11.24

2. The Phantom Six: Plastic Rain

Since one band (AC30) in the top 10 is named after a Vox amplifier, it’s fitting that The Phantom Six takes its name from a 60’s-era Vox guitar. Formerly known as Moon, Mark Poole’s Morgantown-based power pop five-piece starts fresh on this 13-song effort that, if nothing else, helps them make a new name for themselves.

With Poole joined by talented musicians and songwriters like Billy Sheeder, Woody O’ Hara and Clint Sutton, not to mention Billy Matheny, making this, his third appearance on a band’s CD in this year’s top 10, playing bass and providing sweet vocal harmonies, Poole’s songs stand out as evoking something like Matthew Sweet jamming in some awesome garage band with British Invasion nods here and there, singing mainly songs about love. Poole, describing The Phantom Six’s musical output in one interview as “catchy songs that rock pretty hard,” sums it up best for those unfamiliar with the band.

Not only has Poole been fronting various incarnations of Moon for over twenty years, Poole no doubt helped steer The Phantom Six through his own Zone 8 Studios. As great as the richly arranged songs are, and they’re all pretty much standout tracks, the production captures an energy and a raw feel that helps make Plastic Rain arguably the best record of the year from a West Virginia rock band.

Related: CD review: “Plastic Rain”

1. Dream The Electric Sleep: Lost and Gone Forever

They say the best things in life are free, and such was the case in March when I was clued into the free download that Lexington, Kentucky’s Dream the Electric Sleep had made available.

Some bands are around for years and years, and don’t come up with such a coherent vision for a concept record. That DTES did this as their debut effort, only a year after singer-guitarist Matt Page and drummer Joey Waters welcomed Huntington native Chris Tackett (Chum/Hyatari) into the band is even more impressive.

To say that Lost and Gone Forever though, is epic, is almost an understatement.

Lost and Gone Forever is as much a story as it is a record. Told in three acts, Page weaves the split narrative of Clementine and Jack, an Eastern Kentucky coal miner into and over 14 songs worth of vast, stunning sonic landscapes that may bring comparisons to something like Pink Floyd, only heavier, with nods to Radiohead and Muse.

As the story, recalled originally by Clementine on her deathbed, unfolds from young love, marriage and hope into a desire to leave the danger and hard life of the coalfields, the fear of the unknown, of leaving Appalachia, and evolves into Jack’s untimely death in a mining accident, it seems on its face plainly a heart wrenching, well told tragedy. Listen to it repeatedly, even if you’re not from Appalachia and don’t know any coal miners, and you’ll find it’s really a treasure.

With samples from the documentary Harlan County, USA sprinkled throughout, through the story of Jack and Clementine, with album art that masterfully captures the very real world that Page and DTES have pulled out and shown to listeners, few concept records are so deftly woven together into such a complete, beautiful picture; sonically, lyrically, visually, and emotionally.

Reviewing CDs at the end of each year, sometimes you can catch yourself liking the more recent releases. When it became clear after hearing Lost and Gone Forever for the first time back in March or April, the scope of what Dream the Electric Sleep had done, I knew it wasn’t likely just going to be number one on my list, it was one of the best records I had ever heard.

It’s appropriate that they gave away something so sublime for free.

Related: Drama, tragedy, love, life and death: Dream the Electric Sleep brings new concept record to V Club Saturday (4.8.11 DTES H-D article), Q&A w/Matt Page of DTES “Lost and Gone Forever” dissected aptly at danteprog.com


CD Review: "The Whiskey Daredevils"

CD: The Whiskey Daredevils
ARTIST: The Whiskey Daredevils

Reposted from The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Whiskey Daredevils could be described as Elvis Presley meets Glen Danzig singing for Dwight Yoakam fronting The Cramps. Cleveland’s kings of cowpunk are back with album No. 8, and not a whole lot’s changed -- sonically, at least -- for this staple of the rockabilly scene.

That’s not a bad thing. On the self-titled effort, the Daredevils return (via Detroit, Wheeling and Santa Fe) with 12 new twangy, road-weary and sometimes downright desperate tales.

Standout tracks include “Bakersfield,” where the band finds “country music heaven” littered with 7-11’s; “Moderately Lucky Watch,” the down-and-out “Pawn Stars” theme song that will never be; “Santa Fe” and “Girl I Left Behind.” The record closes with two morbidly sweet tales of rebuked love: “Time Marches On” (the album's best song) and “Cold Dead Leaves.”

After nearly a decade together, the band underwent a few personnel changes this time around. Lead guitarist Gary Siperko is once again the front man (back for his third studio effort with the band), and Lords of the Highway bassist “Sugar” Wildman is filling the void left by singer Greg Miller’s brother, Ken, who left the band after recording the album this summer.

Despite those changes, “The Whiskey Daredevils” fits right in with everything the band has been doing these past few years. It would be easy to say it is the Daredevils’ “Greatest Hits” record . . . except the band already called its first release that.

The Whiskey Daredevils play The Empty Glass, 410 Elizabeth St., at 10 p.m. Saturday with the Judy Chops. Cover is $8.