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Published: 2011/11/17
by Mike Greenhaus

A Welcome Return for Perpetual Groove’s Matt McDonald

Matt McDonald with Perpetual Groove at the Georgia Theatre on April 6, 2007

Though Athens, GA’s Perpetual Groove has remained a force on the jamband and festival circuits since forming at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 1997, the psychedelic rockers have had their share of lineup changes over the years. After graduating from school, original keyboardist Brett Hinton and founding drummer Joe Stickney both left the band, the latter of whom found success the popular indie-psych outfit Bear in Heaven. Guitarist/vocalist Brock Butler and bassist Adam Perry soldiered on quite literally after their departure and added two active members of the US military to the band’s lineup in 2001, drummer Albert Suttle and keyboardist Matt McDonald. Driven by Butler’s singer/songwriter roots, McDonald’s synthesizer effects and an overall cinematic—and often euphoric—sound, Perpetual Groove released a series of well-received studio albums and even scored a marquee spot at Bonnaroo. In the spring of 2008, the group surprised many fans when they parted ways with McDonald, citing both personal reasons and family commitment. He was replaced by onetime Guest keyboardist John Hruby, another member of the extended Perpetual Groove family.

After a few years of steady growth, Perpetual Groove is about to enter its fourth musical incarnation: Hruby plans to leave the band at the end of 2011, only to be replaced by McDonald. The once-and-future Perpetual Groove keyboardist will join the group on the radio later today and also sit in with the band during their highly-anticipated Georgia Theatre comeback show tomorrow. As he works himself back into the Perpetual Groove framework, McDonald plans to appear for a few songs at Atlanta’s Center Stage on December 30 and 31 and then on a more permanent basis in January.

In a Relix/ exclusive, the members of Perpetual Groove explain what happened.

Given that you have not played together in public yet, I was wondering if you could start by walking us through when John Hruby decided to leave Perpetual Groove, through the decision to bring Matt back into the fold.

Adam: We got the news from Hruby that he was having some life-type issues and it was making it difficult for him to function within the band. I can’t really go into it because it is all his personal stuff but we decided that he needed to take care of himself and one of the best ways he could do that was to remove himself from Perpetual Groove. It was upsetting to hear but at the same time we had to respect his wishes and why he was having to make that decision. So we were left in a little bit of a quandary about how best to move forward—we had some discussions and, eventually, we started talking with Matt. He said he was amenable to the idea of being back with the band—it would take a little bit of modification on how we do things and how we tour, though. But all of it—when we talked about it—seemed like good decisions we should have make a while ago. The more we discussed all of this, the more it seemed to make sense. It all happened pretty fast and here we are.

Albert: We all decided that if we were going move forward and continue the only person we wanted to play keys was Matt. So if he didn’t want to do it we may have played our last show.

And it’s been about three years since Matt left originally?

Matt: It has been about three and a half years since I left—my last show was Memorial Day Weekend 2008 at the Amberland festival. We had announced it maybe a month before then. When that all happened—and in that time since, despite public speculation—the guys and I were always close. If you look at my Xbox Live history, Albert and I have played countless games of Halo, and Adam and his family were with my family at Thanksgiving [in 2010]. The week that my son was born last year there are plenty of pictures of Brock holding him so the guys and I have never been closer. We all live between Athens, GA and Atlanta.

For me, I’ve taken care of some of the personal stuff [that led to my departure] and kind of got a break from the road. I work at an orthopedic clinic here in town where I am the work comp. coordinator. They have been incredibly supportive of my decision to rejoin the band. I will be able to do some work from the road—they are giving me a computer to do that. So, fortunately, I get the best of both worlds in that I’m moving forward and I get to go back to Perpetual Groove and continue working there. Honestly, the guys and I are closer than we have ever been before. Adam is a father now as well—we have all grown up in the past three years. Even though it is me coming back into the band, I think musically there is going to be evolution as opposed to a return to a certain sound. We have all grown as musicians as well. As much as I should not look at what people say online, I have listened to some of my critics—being heavy with the loops and what not—but it is going to be an evolution of the band, not a return.

Given that it’s been three years of new songs, new covers and new sounds in the band, Matt, how familiar are you with the music that Perpetual Groove has done in the past couple years? And for the rest of the guys, is there anything from the music Matt’s been doing since he’s been gone from the band that’s been particularly meaningful and could be added to the Perpetual Groove sound?

Matt: They gave me the songs about three weeks ago. I have been working on them on my own at home and we have a bunch of practice sessions coming up before New Year’s—when the official transition is. So I have been doing my homework and making sure I don’t drop the ball on the new songs. I know Brock and I plan to get together this weekend to go over vocals and try to restructure who sings what on all these new tunes.

Brock: [In regards to] The conversations that Matt and I have been having as far as songs that have been written with John at the helm. I feel that the songs are going to reach a new potential. It’s not that they weren’t reaching potential before but there’s an element that Matt— specifically his vocals but also the patches and loops that he was using—would have been a credit to the song. They sometimes weren’t in sync with the sound tapestries and they could be, so I’m looking forward to seeing how we can bring back some of the techniques that were ours.

Matt’s general approach to things—especially his tone selection on the keyboard—is really powerful and these days keyboards can really define a band. I’m excited to try things in a different way, one of our newest songs, “Man Without The Answers,” I know there’s a tone that Matt and I would have put into words, and I think that approaching that song with a certain kind of thickness, a darkness if you will was very appropriate to that song. I’m excited to see the songs have come into existence during Matt’s time away from the group and how he’ll snap into those parts.

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