Hailing Caesars With Scrapomatics Mike Mattison
After working with renowned producer John Snyder on their previous two releases, Mike Mattison and Paul Olsen have opted to go it alone this time. Well, not exactly, as the pair, better known as Scrapomatic have enlisted Jeff Bakos to engineer and co-produce Sidewalk Caesars along with Mattison. What’s more, Scrapomatic has expanded to a quintet throughout the recording, as the sound swells with the addition of guitarist Dave Yoke, bassist Ted Pecchio and drummer Tyler Greenwell. In addition, Mattison, who also is the vocalist for the Derek Trucks Band, has tapped both Trucks and DTB percussionist Count M’Butu for guest duties on_Caesars_. The following conversation with Mattison, examines the new release, touches on the birth of the blooz and offers a surprising fun fact regarding one of the more celebrated first novels of the past decade.
DB- Let’s jump right in and talk about the new disc. You co-produced Sidewalk Caesars. What led to that decision and how did you approach it?
MM- I think first and foremost it was an idea to try and save some money (laughs). One comes to realize after you’ve done quite a few recordings, that you can probably achieve your vision on your own. So we gave it a shot and I think it worked pretty well.
For me most of producing is just making sure the material is right and the arrangements are right and that the instrumentation and the players are what you need. As for the recording part, I don’t get into the studio as a tool or anything like that. I think we learned from John Snyder, just make sure that the music is together and everything else will kind of work itself out. So we figured we’ll just try it ourselves this time.
DB- In terms of achieving that vision, how would you compare the new Scrapomatic disc to the prior two in terms of your aims and intentions?
MM- I think Caesars is pretty similar to Alligator Love Cry, maybe just a little more tightened up, a little less raw. But I think comparing those two to the first, there’s much more of what we are trying to do. The first one took Scrapomatic as a duo out of our New York element, brought us to Louisiana and you got to meet all these incredible musicians and people. But at the same time the final product was kind of something else. I think the second two records are much more who we are.
DB- On Sidewalk Caesars, Paul and yourself are backed by an additional three players, who have been joining you at a number of your live gigs as well. How did that relationship with Dave Yoke, Ted Pecchio and Tyler Greenwell come about?
MM- I had a lot of time off when Derek was out with Clapton about a year and a half ago. So I started playing around Atlanta, just trying to stay busy and did a lot of writing on my own. I’ve known Dave Yorke for a while, so I did some gigs with him and Ted and just realized that they’re like-minded fellows. I’d always loved Tyler’s drumming, he’s one of my all-time favorite drummers, so we figured when it came time to record, why reach beyond what we’ve already got? We did some rehearsals and it seemed to gel pretty well and they were available. Over the course of last fall we did about three weekends of recording, just two day little in and outs and that’s when we got all the materials for the record.
DB- So for all intents and purposes is Scrapomatic that particular quintet when those three are available?
MM- Whenever possible, yeah. I mean thankfully for those guys, for their careers and their bank accounts, Susan Tedeschi has picked them all up and they’re all in her band now. It’s great exposure for those guys and they deserve to be on a bigger stage, so I’m happy that that came about. And when they’re not out with her and we have some shows, we try to do them together.
DB- By the way, what does Paul do when you’re off gigging with the Derek Trucks Band? I don’t hear much about him. Does he gig out?
MM- He’s got two little kids so he’s pretty busy with his a family but he does some playing around town, he does some solo shows. He does a lot of writing but he’ll also play with some other artists like Kristina Beaty who’s now Kristina Train, she got married, who was on our second record. She’s doing her own record and she does a lot of shows and Paul accompanies her, so he stays busy.
DB- You mentioned your songwriting a bit earlier. Is any song that you write a Scrapomatic song, or when writing for Scrapomatic do you need to find yourself in a particular head space or musical place?
MM- I just write to write just to express something that’s going on or an idea that crosses my mind. I try to serve the song and as it’s maturing and becoming an actual thing, I can tell if this is worth pitching to Derek Trucks Band or not. The DTB is definitely is on a larger timeline and Scrapomatic is really a clearinghouse for Paul and I to do our thing, our songwriting and our playing. So most songs immediately go into the Scrapomatic bin but sometimes I’ll try to keep something out to pitch to the DTB. The two songs that Derek plays on this record I was hoping might go on the DTB record but I didn’t know when we were going to record, so I was like, “Ahh, forget it, we’ll just do it.”
DB- Have there been any songs that have crossed over from Scrapomatic to DTB?
MM- No, although that’s been on the table a couple times. It’s always a possibility but I’m kind of lucky that I have two similar but very different creative outlets. The songwriting outlet is really Scrapomatic and performing is much more DTB.
DB- When you’re writing music, to what extent would you say that your lyrics are driven by form or genre?
MM- Well, it depends. Songs come to you a lot of different ways. Sometimes one comes as a little melody snippet, sometimes it comes lyrically as a story you want to tell. Sometimes you have the beginning and the end in terms of lyrics and you fill in the middle. The one thing that I try to focus on when I’m writing is, “Am I okay with these words coming out of my mouth? Does it feel right? Is it embarrassing?” Lyrics are a lot like poetry but at the same time they have to sound well sung and I think that’s the big test for me. I go back and tinker, changing one little word here or one little clause there, just to make sure that it doesn’t sound like a lie, I guess. So that’s the most important thing to me.
DB- In Scrapomatic you sing tunes that Paul writes and with the Derek Trucks Band, you also sing the music of other songwriters. To what extent do you need a comfort level in terms of the lyrics and message in order to deliver a song?
MM- No, that’s what I do with my writing. If I’m singing somebody else’s song, I try to inhabit it. If it’s an original, I don’t mind asking if it’s okay if I say this or don’t say that but I do believe the old saying, “If you’re a singer you should be able to sing the phone book.” But just for my own comfort level, when I do have control over it, I’m pretty picky.
DB- Scrapomatic is not necessarily a blues band but you’re certainly blues-based. As a songwriter do you find yourself tapping into any particular tradition with your lyrics or music?
MM- Sure, the great thing that’s special about blues lyrics is you can jump from space and time. You can be quite abstract and you don’t have to make perfect sense in terms of telling a story. You can be much more opaque and crazy. I think we definitely take that cue from a lot of blues lyrics. Also, you can talk about things that aren’t so nice. You don’t have to write love songs. In fact you can write hate songs. So that’s a nice thing that blues allows too.
DB- In terms of the blues, to what extent is it your intent to preserve a sound that seems to be increasingly rare in contemporary music and to what extent do you aim to define something new? What is the balance you strike if you do it consciously at all?
MM- We do it consciously. We’re always trying not just to find blues songs that we like and dust them off but also write in that direction ourselves using not just song structures but blues elements. That’s very conscious but at the same time we don’t want to limit ourselves to it.
When Paul and I started Scrapomatic we were in a band that defined itself as a funk band and it became very doctrinaire in terms of what we were allowed to play and not to play. Nobody knew what this list of rules was but there was this unspoken idea that there were rules.
So that’s why Paul and I broke away. We were like, “We can do whatever the hell we want. And we like the blues, so let’s start there.” But if anybody has ears and they’ve been listening to American music, it’s not a great leap from Muddy Waters to George Jones or Ray Charles to Hank Williams or Nina Simone to whomever. I don’t know what American music is necessarily but it definitely is an attitude and a feeling and I think if you have a grasp of that, if you’ve listened enough and played enough, you don’t have to worry about being confined to one single genre.
DB- As I recall, you met Paul at a P Funk show, is that correct?
MM- We did in Minneapolis, actually. When I graduated from college, I did not have an easy time finding a job and I had an opportunity to go over to Hungary and sing jazz for a year, which was a great experience and a great way to get ones chops together. Then when I was back in Minneapolis and hoping to find some people to play with, a mutual friend introduced us. Those P Funk shows go on forever, it’s like Hour Three and you’re thinking, “Maybe I should just go home.” It’s fun but at the same time, you kind of get one of those P Funk headaches. It was down time and I started talking to Paul. We hit it off and over the next few weeks, we started playing together. I was like, “Oh shit, not only does this guy know what he’s talking about but he’s good.” And we kind of had similar sensibilities having grown up in the same time and place.
DB- How did you come to spend a year in Hungary?
MM- I was doing a little after college European tramp and a friend of mine from college who graduated earlier lived there and he was involved in some, I don’t know, sketchy business venture (Laughs). But he quit doing that and decided that he liked Eastern Europe and it was very cheap to live there. There were a lot of people my age there at the time just living off the shitty circumstances that everybody else in the country had to suffer through but as an American your dollar went pretty far. And he said, “If stuff doesn’t work out for you this fall you can come back join my group.” So I did
DB- That was like 91, 92?
DB- Well that was the time to be there, during a rather significant political and cultural moment. What are your memories of that period?
MM- It was a great time. I was there when the last Soviet troops pulled out and it was just a very interesting time in that the economy was of course in the toilet but it was another world, especially Hungary, even among eastern European nations. If you have to come up with a national characteristic, it is pessimistic. They’ve been overrun starting by the Mongols and the Turks and the Germans and they just can’t buy a break. So unlike this unspoken American sensibility which is I guess optimistic, the Hungarian are not optimistic. And it was actually really refreshing and fun to be in a place where people expected everything to go horribly wrong. It kind of matched my world view at the time, so it was really fun (laughs). Plus they were so hungry for American music and so supportive and interested in it, that it was kind of like having a dream audience. So in a lot of ways it was a perfect place to be.
DB- Did you ever read Prague? [Arthur Phillips’ 2002 novel, which despite its title, is not about the Czech Republic but rather chronicles the lives of North American expats living in Budapest during the early 90s]
MM- Yeah actually that’s my friend Arthur, the one I had lived with, Arthur Phillips.
DB- WowDo you find yourself somehow represented in that book?
MM- I am in there somewhere as a jazz singer. [Author’s note: Let the record show, that I had no idea that Mike knew Arthur, although come to think of it, they are both Harvard graduates and both hail from the Minneapolis. Incidentally, I re-read Prague, following this interview and as best I can tell, Mike does indeed make what amounts to a few cameo appearances in the novel, appearing in a band along with a saxophone player, who appears to be a stand-in for the author.].
DB- I enjoyed Prague. It feels very evocative of that time, at least from the American perspective.
MM- It is, it’s a good book. There’s another one called Ballad of the Whiskey Robber [by Julian Rubinstein] about a bank robber who was active at the time in Budapest while I was there, who was actually a Transylvanian and he kind of became a folk hero. The only way he could get the courage was to drink a bottle of whiskey, so he’d just go into these banks smashed and rob them. That book offers a little more of what the Hungarians were going through. It’s poignant and at times humorous.
DB- Moving back to the blues, you cover a Skip James composition on Sidewalk Caesars. He has that haunting falsetto and I would imagine he’s had some influence on you. Can you talk about a bit about his impact on your music?
MM- When I first heard Skip James, I was like, “What the hell is this?” It’s just a voice from another world. And of course I do try to rip him off and emulate him somewhat. But I also like his attitude. He was one of the few blues guys who didn’t consider himself an entertainer. He considered himself an artist and maybe he kind of held his nose a little higher in a condescending way but I always admired that. He was like, “I am making a conscious piece of art here to express myself and if you can dance to it great, and if you can’t, tough shit for you.”
It’s interesting, there’s a book called I’d Rather Be The Devil and it’s just awful. It’s basically just saying, “You know, Skip James wasn’t a nice guy.” As I was like, “Well yeah, if you listen to his music, who’d want to get to know him?” (laughs) I had to quit reading it, it was so annoying to me. Since when does being a blues artist mean you’re a nice person? And who would be if you were living under his circumstances? At least he had the courage and the talent to communicate how he really felt and I just think he’s a courageous artist with a unique voice. It’s like Sam Phillips said about Howlin’ Wolf, “This is where the sound of man never dies.” I feel the same way about Skip James.
DB- It is quite possible that many of our readers have heard of Skip James but perhaps have never heard him. Can you suggest something they should check out?
There’s a great collection called Blues from the Delta, it’s on Vanguard. It’s songs that he’d been playing for years but there was this great blues discovery in the early 60s and so this is Skip James performing when he’s probably in his 60s. He’s an older man but the recordings are much more crisp and clear than the stuff you’re going to get from the few sides that we have that he did in the 30s. Sometimes it’s hard to get through that scratchiness. It’s worth it musically if you can put up with it because when you hear Skip as a young man it’s even more profound. But a good place to start is with Blues from the Delta because you can really hear what he’s doing on guitar and piano and in terms of his voice.
DB- There was that folk revival in the early 60s where a number of old blues players were rediscovered. But since that moment, it seems that mainstream support and interest in blues musicians and country blues players in particular has waned. Do you have any thoughts on what happened?
MM- I think the blues revival was a great thing and I think people coming from the folk world discovering these country blues guys led them to the blues that was happening currently, the Chicago guys. And this is just me guessing but people then became so enamored with the electric Chicago blues that they came to think that’s what blues was. And as you moved into the 80s and even now, it’s become what we call it blooz. You know, the guys with the fedoras, Little Johnny and the Wild Whatevers. It’s bar music and that’s not what blues is.
The country blues obviously is a very different thing. It’s stories and it’s for intimate dances. And the Chicago blues was a place for people to let off steam but not just in a happy way. There’s a lot of tense angry stories about having to work and the killing floor [a term for Chicago’s packinghouses] and just anxiety and frustration about relationships. It’s not nice and I think everybody’s kind of come to think of blues as this good time Miller Lite music because we have this attitude sold to us. But there’s a lot more to it and I think that’s part of what Scrapomatic is trying to do. We’re trying to mine some of the weirder aspects of the genre and of ourselves and try to inject a little life back into one of the few uniquely American art forms. It’s valuable stuff and it’s a shame that it’s kind of been tarnished. But you know, that’s how things go.
I’m not here to say we’re the saviors of blues or something but things are changing and especially with the advent of the internet, you’re able to give yourself an education in a day, in an afternoon, which is a good thing and a bad thing. When I was younger, I remember the fun of the years-long experience of going into record stores and just spending money and trying stuff out. Now if you are interested, you can get on the train quickly and easily. Hopefully that will inspire people to dig deeper.
DB- I think about that quite a bit. Back when people were forced to seek out music a bit more aggressively, they were more actively engaged and as a result I think the experience likely carried some deeper resonance. But now, to some degree, some of that same music becomes all the more disposable because of the ease in acquisition. It’s wonderful that if somebody wants to hear Skip James, they can find an mp3 within a minute or two but I wonder if a deeper connection is lost.
MM- I think it can cut both ways. Music in a way is more disposable but at the same time the product that people are putting out is quite disposable. Put it this way, I was at school and Chuck D of Public Enemy came to give a speech and somebody asked him, “What do you think accounts for the popularity of Public Enemy with rural white audiences?” And he responded, “When you’re sitting there watching MTV and a Public Enemy video comes on you say, Yo, fuck Glenn Frey!’” And I think it’s probably the same thing. If you’re sitting around listening to Panic At The Disco or whatever and then you go back and you listen to Skip James you’re like, “Yo, what is this?” So in a way, I think the music itself kind of fights against disposability.
DB- Swinging back to Sidewalk Caesars, Count M’Butu appears on a couple songs. Can you talk a bit about working with him?
MM- We’re lucky enough to get to know him and he’s always said, “If you need me to play, I’ll play.” And I was like, “Alright, I will take you up on that,” because he’s one of the most subtle players. You don’t really notice him because he’s so good and I think that’s the mark of a great percussionist. When he solos, sure it’s amazing but he’s just seamless in his sense of the groove. We’re lucky to have him on the record but it’s just been lucky to get to know him. He’s played with everybody on earth including Funkadelic. He’s seen it all and he’s still just right there in the pocket. He’s an astounding musician.
DB- I had a conversation about him last year at a Derek Trucks Band show. A friend of mine said he couldn’t hear him in the mix. My response was that he could hear him but just didn’t realize it.
MM- Exactly. You don’t want to hear him, that’s the thing. You want to feel what he’s doing and it’s pretty remarkable. I think sometimes he doesn’t get the props he deserves but he’s in it for all the right reasons. He’s in it for the more mystical aspects, he’s not in it as a “look at me” type character, obviously.
DB- Which reminds me, do you have a Col. Bruce story?
MM- (Laughs) Everybody does I guess. There are a couple. One of the first times I met him, he did the guess your birthday stuff and he was close, he missed by a day.
DB- It’s hard to fathom
MM- It’s unreal. As Sun Ra said, “There’s forces.” Well there’s forces and the Colonel’s taped into them. One of my favorite quotes, we were chatting, he was just kind of musing and he said, “My mother always told me, Eat other peoples’ food, bother folks at work and get with couples in trouble.’” (Laughs)
DB- That sounds like an epigram one might find before some twisted contemporary novel. Speaking of which, you also seem to be toting a book around. Can you recommend something that you’ve enjoyed lately?
MM- I just finished a book on the last couple of years of the Soviet empire by David Remnick the New Yorker editor. It’s calledLenin’s Tomb and it’s kind of interesting. I’ve got this history of the CIA which looks pretty humorous. I’ve got a million books lying around. I’m pretty bad, I finish books but I have four or five going at one time.
DB- Okay, before we wrap this up, can you offer a tease regarding the forthcoming Derek Trucks Band disc?
MM- It’s great stuff. We started off doing demos for the record company in a studio that Derek has built for himself and then we were like, you know, “Let’s just keep it.” So there’s an element of rawness in some of the songs. And then we found our groove and did some more writing and recording and things got a little more, not slick, but together. So it runs the gamut from stripped down country blues kind of stuff to full on rock things with horns. It’s a pretty fascinating record.
DB-Are these songs the band has played out?
MM- We’ve played a little bit but we’ve consciously tried not to play a lot of it live. We’re happy that people pay attention to our music and record and stuff, so it’ll be nice to have a few surprises for everyone.
DB- Final question: What do you have on the horizon in terms of Scrapomatic tour plans?
MM- I think we’re going to go out a little in October and then hopefully we’ll head out again in December to do some stuff when the DTB is down. We’re also planning to record again this fall. We have so much material that we might as well start laying it down. We have this backlog of stuff and it’s a shame not to get it down. Songs have a way of just drifting away from you, so we’re trying to lock those down.