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Published: 2012/12/05
by Dean Budnick

Scrapomatic: All Ideas Welcome at Mike and Paul’s Dojo

Earlier this summer, Landslide Records issued Scrapomatic’s latest studio effort, I’m A Stranger (And I Love The Night). This is the fourth album that Mike Mattison and Paul Olsen have released together since they founded Scrapomatic thirteen years ago. They recorded it at Swamp Raga Studios, the home facility of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, which came about through Mattison’s efforts as a vocalist first with the Derek Trucks Band and more recently with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Meanwhile, Olsen has occupied himself with a variety of additional musical endeavors and has garnered two ASCAP songwriting awards.

Scrapomatic is now officially a trio with longtime collaborator Dave Yoke lending his guitar to the band. In the following conversation, Mattison talks about Scrapomatic’s development and the group’s upcoming plans, which include a gig on Sunday, December 9, in New York City at Joe’s Pub.

I’d like to start out by talking about a few of your quotes from your official band bio which I found rather amusing and insightful. Right off the bat you say, “Blues, roots, Americana, country, yeah, that’s us. But we’re not just trying to update the sound so the kids will like it. In fact, fuck the kids.” Now I assume that’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek…

Oh no, it’s not tongue in cheek at all. I said that because I get frustrated that sometimes the people around us would like us to try to be current and contemporary but that’s not what we’re about. We’d like to exist outside of the popular milieu and listen to our forbearers and what they put down and try to take that forward and not really keep an eye on what tends to be popular or what’s interesting now, in terms of what’s on the radio or what’s on television. It’s just trying to really make and conceive what we consider to be art and hence, “Fuck the kids.” Now I like kids, I have a kid; I just don’t want to be held up by what the current popular consumption is because it’s not fun, it’s confining and I’m not interested in it.

Here’s another one that’s destined for my office wall: “The trouble with band bios is that they become lists of influences…Metaphor has replaced simile. It’s disrespectful”

I guess I’m talking about how other artists or performers are characterized in the media. I’m just bemoaning the lost art of the rock critic. I used to look to certain magazines and people to point me in the right direction, and now it’s really become more of a PR campaign. People say like “this person is Aretha Franklin” or “that person is Sam Cooke,” or “they are the Grateful Dead.” It’s not helpful, I don’t find that helpful as a person who’s seeking out music and consuming it and living with it; it kind of hurts my feelings. I’d rather have a class of people who are really directing me towards what I need in terms of music.

In terms of the ongoing dynamic between art and commerce, as an artist who’s committed to pursing your own muse while harkening back to the past, I’m interested to hear what you think of social media and its impact.

I think it’s a good thing. The fact that artists can go right to their people is terrific. And it says a lot about artists, you have to be active, not just in terms of performing and being in front of people, which I don’t think was necessarily the case when I was coming up in the 80’s and 90’s—it was more about how record companies and people could push you. But now you just have to hit the road, get in your rental car or your van or your bus or whatever, and be in front of people and make an impact. And then you can kind of double down on that with social media and be in intimate contact with people. I think that’s great. I think that’s wonderful. At the same time, it does take a certain element out of the equation, which is editorial, it takes editors out of the equation. And I think editors have been very helpful to the consumer. But in terms of what it makes the artist do, in terms of getting off your ass and getting in front of people and being in contact with people and being in communication with people, I think social media are terrific.

In terms of how people receive their media now days, you look at 70’s FM radio, pop radio, which was so much broader and now it’s really about niches and narrow bands. I’m curious, do you think that works to your benefit in Scrapomatic, or do you think it adds an additional challenge.

I think it works, because we’re never going to get there. It reminds me of being a younger person in the early 70s, 80s, early 90s, and it was an us versus them thing. There really was an alternative underground music scene, and people will always make that. People will always create what they need and find the people who want it, and I kind of like it. It really reminds me of being a kid in the 80s, and going into people’s basements on the weekend to hear a certain band and it works. It makes it even more interesting and intriguing that it’s not being sort of anointed from above and sent down. You feel like you’re a part of it and that’s great. I think there’s an audience for Scrapomatic, I think we’re finding them and I think it’s easier to find that audience with social media. I am enjoying the current situation out there in terms of music land.

Just one more quote…we premiered a track, “Night Train Distant Whistles” on Relix.com, and you commented, “Essentially this song is about running away from your problems, which we recommend.” It that true, do you recommend that?

Well I don’t think it’s a healthy solution but it’s fun.

That song is one of just a couple you co-wrote with Paul on this album. A few others are credited to yourself alone but in terms of the songs that he composed, what are the challenges for you in singing songs that you didn’t write. To what extent will you go back to Paul and say, “I just can’t sing this” because you might not be comfortable with the sentiment.

Oh no, I feel perfectly comfortable. I mean I write some of the songs but it’s pretty much down the middle, Paul writes the other part of the material and we collaborate quite a bit. I think Paul and I, our friendship is based on our shared sensibility of how we encounter the world. Anything Paul writes, pretty much I’m 100% behind, and usually say, I wish I had said it that well and that concisely and that wonderfully. Whatever Paul writes I’m 100% behind, whether it’s nice or romantic or unfriendly or whatever, we’re pretty much on the same page.

You mention a romantic sensibility. It seems to me that a few of the songs on this album are a little sweeter than the earlier Scrapomatic material.

I think you’re absolutely right. Actually Paul and I have talked about that a little bit. You know we’ve been doing this for years and years, about a decade and a half, and at a certain point we’re like “We’re not just dirtballs who want to write about other dirtballs,” we’re actually, I wouldn’t say well-rounded, but certainly fleshed-out human beings. Maybe it’s time to write some love songs, or songs about relationships that aren’t just about loss and bad feelings. I think Paul wrote two gorgeous songs, “How Unfortunate For Me” and “I’m A Stranger (And I Love The Night),” I find just really uplifting, beautiful pieces of work and it’s just a pleasure to be able to sing them.

Given your role in the Tedeschi Trucks Band and the Derek Trucks Band prior to that, people see you out there when you’re performing with Scrapomatic. What’s Paul’s musical focus outside of the group?

You know, he’s generally just a songwriter. He works various jobs and keeps his life together in New York, but he teaches guitar lessons and people also put him together with other songwriters, and he’s kind of a song doctor in a way. I don’t know if your readers would really know people that he’s worked with. That’s kind of his strength, he has his own unique vision. The unique thing about Paul, unlike most musicians in general I think, is that he’s a terrific collaborator and he’s very empathetic musically, lyrically, emotionally and intellectually. He works with a lot of people just helping them get their projects together. I’d like to see him do even more of that going forward, because he’s extremely good at it.

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