Eric Matthews had a problem: his standards were — perhaps — too high. In the mid-90s when everyone was trying to be angrier, more abrasive, more “real” than everyone else, he was looking to some of the standard-bearers of classic pop like Michael Brown (The Left Banke) and Brian Wilson. His first solo effort, It’s Heavy In Here, came out on Sub Pop in the U.S. and found a little success in England, but certainly not as many devotees as the album deserved. What the album did get was a small but devoted fanbase that appreciated the effort and craftsmanship Matthews put into the work.
The good news is that the album is back thanks to the reissue gurus at Lo-Fidelity Records. Popdose had the opportunity to talk with Matthews who remains as passionate about this album, his discography, and what making a great record requires of the individual.
You were initially with the group Cardinal. After you parted company, you went to Sub Pop, and that’s where It’s Heavy In Here was released…or did the album come first and the label picked it up? I know that around the mid-90s they were trying to diversify away from the Nirvana/Mudhoney niche people assumed for them. This was a time when we saw Velocity Girl come around and The Afghan Whigs were picking up steam. I’d like to get a sense of how this album found a home there.
Great question. It went like this. Cardinal came out and that record got lots of attention, made lots of “best of year” lists etc., and my rise to a position where I would get a record deal of my own, which started in England. Flydaddy had the record here in America but for the UK, it was Dedicated Records, who was our label for European distribution. They made their own independent choice to release my song “Dream Figure” as the lead single from our Cardinal album. Mind you, going into the recording sessions for Cardinal we really only had 9 songs ready to record. The contract with Flydaddy was that 30 minutes or 10 songs. We had neither. So, it was decided that I should contribute one song to fill out the requirement. So, I wrote “Dream Figure,” a very simple song that has a brooding feel and stance. The album came out and in the UK, my song “Dream Figure” was well received and made its way to radio play at BBC 1 & 2, and then soon after, to the pages of Melody Maker as Single of the Week. Cardinal was a Richard Davies platform, really, the reason I joined the band was to help make Richard’s songs sound better. It was the blend artistically of why we came together. Nonetheless, my little “solo” song (Richard didn’t play or sing on it) became the first “single” of the album. But here in America, though the label put out my favorite song from the record, “If You Believe In Christmas Trees”, on 7″ single, it was “Dream Figure” that became the album’s favorite at college radio domestically.
At the point “Dream Figure” was becoming a minor UK hit, and here in the states “Dream Figure” was getting lots of the attention at radio, I started getting calls. One of the first was from Chris Douridas from KCRW in Santa Monica. He was one of the first guys who called. At that point my phone number was still listed like I was a civilian. He called me right up. And we had a great talk. From there, it started getting crazy, labels looking me up and calling to see what I was doing. Sub Pop was one of those calls, Jon Poneman actually, the leader. We had our talks and then a face to face meeting that resulted in a month’s long negotiation where our lawyers figured everything out. It was a big deal for me and yeah, we figured it all out, settled on a deal that resulted in my debut (It’s Heavy In Here) and 1997’s The Lateness of the Hour.
I failed to realized before how much of this album stems from you and Jason Falkner. How did that come about?
Well, I wrote all of the songs on the album but Jason, he was a huge contributor to the songs on this album. His work on electric guitars, piano, and even bass on a couple songs are epic. Jason Falkner is one of planet Earth’s greatest musicians. I am very lucky to have had him on my team early on as I did. He’s just amazing and Fanfare, good Lord, what he did for me in those guitar lead melody lines has everything to do with why and how I am doing this interview now. Without Jason I could have made a very nice rendition of this song, “Fanfare.” But with Jason, and my having the brains to not limit his ideas, let him design like he did, well, Fanfare, a nice little song, turned into a massive FM radio classic. Without Jason’s help I don’t know at all that my career to this point would have nearly the sting and potency.
How did it come about? It was early 1994 and I had discovered The Grays. Jason’s song “Very Best Years” was on my local late night video show. I instantly fell in love with the song and knew that this song and that man, the singer, was a peer. Weeks later I got news that The Grays were coming to my town, Portland, Oregon. They were on a tour and had a planned stop at a downtown record store appearance, an in-store performance. I didn’t care about the performance but had a strong feeling that I had to be there to meet Jason. I sat through a brilliant The Grays set, featuring John and Buddy songs but I was there for Jason. I had the record and though I loved the whole thing, I knew that Jason was the reason for my love of the record. When the band was done I found myself with the opportunity to speak with Jason. We made fast friends. We were the same age, loved the same bands. I hit him with all the right questions figuring him out, The Damned, XTC, The Church — I knew or believed I knew where he came from and was mostly right. But I also came armed. Cardinal had just finished tracking and I had tough mixes of our sessions. I handed Jason a cassette tape of our roughs and we said goodbye. But it was warm. We hugged.
Two weeks later Jason called me from that The Grays tour. He had finally had a chance to listen to the Cardinal record, before anybody had ever heard it. He told me that though he liked me “this kind of thing happened to him all the time.” He referred to musicians who he would speak with and in the end there was no actual connection or likemindedness shared. He sent me a post card, a The Damned post card – I still have it. I should scan it in for this article. The post card told me he would call me when he landed home, and that my tape and our Cardinal record was great.
Fast forward to 1995, Jason was the first, just a month or so before my deal with Sub Pop, he signed with Elektra. We talked about working together at that point but in the end, my record at Sup Pop got green-let before Jason’s. Jason was available and I had a $60K budget. I wanted to make a semi-electric album and by my mind, Jason was the sing best guitar guy I could ever have on my songs. I was right.
In purely aesthetic terms, It’s Heavy In Here sounds for its time like nothing else that was out there, especially in the pop realm. At that point if bands were not going heavy, they were dabbling in ’60s psychedelia and jangle. When you were writing and recording, were there thoughts about just how unique this would be, especially in the instrumentation for “Poisons Will Pass Me” and “Three-Cornered Moon”?
My background prior to writing my own music, actually composing, was my youthful years being a trumpet player in chamber groups, full orchestras, and even in jazz groups. So, while I was designing a plan for this album I was very mindful of setting up a recording situation where I would include the widest span of instrumentation I could afford within the budget as well as narrowing in on he kind of instrumental scope of how I knew I wanted my songs to sound like. Strings were very important, the sound of “the orchestra” but also, a heavy brass presence. I needed to blow my horn.
I tend to hear the influence of this album on (music from others artists in subsequent years). With that, I consider the record to be one of those records that arrived a little too early to get what it deserved. Have you heard from different artists who may have cited the impact of It’s Heavy In Here as a motivator?
People point out to me all the time records and bands who are said to be borrowing from, and/or inspired by my work but I tend not to get it. See, I took my delivery/production method from Bacharach and Brian Wilson, Steely Dan and Scott Walker. If we have modern groups doing something beautiful who are said to be connected to me, I tend to not believe it’s in regards to my compositions, because, and I will say this plainly, if they could, BECAUSE NONE OF THEM, write any kind of great songs. I hear “great records” every year boasted as from bands noting my work as inspiration or influence. I hear those records and 9 times out of 10, it’s really just grotesque sounding.
As you mentioned, The Lateness of the Hour followed, and after that you moved over to Empyrean Records, but there certainly was not a quick changeover. What happened in between the six or seven year gap that eventually led to Six Kinds of Passion Looking For An Exit?
If you look at those years, what you find is an almost complete collapse of the music industry. Studios started closing, labels started shutting down, radio stations began disappearing, record stores (Tower) going out of business. Me, and most of the artist I know either lost their deals or had a hard/impossible battle in trying to find a new home for their records. I wasn’t spared that indignity.
I’m under the impression that you have new music coming out soon. If that’s the case, what can listeners expect and when might they get to hear it?
I have three albums of material. One isn’t fully mixed, and one is 90% recorded, the other, mix and mastered, ready for release. The music is a new kind of grand. It’s huge musically with an expanded sense of harmony. I have the ability to actually move the ball up the hill, advance, take that hill, and pose up at the top of the thing like a Mexican Donald Trump.
We’re coming around full circle now. Lo-Fidelity Records is re-releasing It’s Heavy In Here in all the configurations including a limited vinyl lp run. What has been your process with going back to that album? Anything you’re picking up on that you might not have seen during that initial time of writing and recording?
Well, it was my job to supervise the mastering of the songs. They needed a little freshening up. The primary thing is that records are louder now then they were back then. But it’s tricky. Tony Lash and I produced that album in a classic all analog setting and worked very hard to make it sound like a classic album in all respects. Most fans agree that we did that. So, the challenge was to add in some of the modern aspects that listeners require while not ruining or altering the initial vibe. It ended up not being easy. Multiple drafts and with the help of my pals in SheLoom, who listened to draft after draft, we landed on a good remaster. I also had to select from my archives the bonus songs that are on the CD and in download format. That was fun, hearing those old b-sides and picking through the demos, choosing what would be good.
There are going to be the longtime fans who will appreciate that the album is back and within reach. But there will also be those who come to it fresh. What would be your best statement to them in its regard?
New fans, there will be some I suppose who pick up the reissue for reasons like they read about my work over the years from working with Jason Falkner, Tahiti 80, etc. The LP and CD have been out of print for 15 years so yeah, I am hoping that the demand will find its way into new people’s ears.
All the things that separated the album in the ’90s and made it stand out as unique have worked in its favor. It does not sound like a ’90s record even though it is a “guitar pop” record. That is definitely a plus, and the early callout of Steely Dan seems apt to me. Because It’s Heavy In Here doesn’t lean on the studio tricks of the time, and instead makes great use of real instruments, I think new listeners may be intrigued. That’s something that bothers me about a lot of new music, in that most of it is going to sound like relics of this decade 20 years on. I was hoping to get your take on what — I assume — is a sense of responsibility to the songwriting process and production to not burden it in that way?
My mission was clear and easy frankly. I hated the way records sounded, and how stupid most bands in the mainstream seemed. Literally, knuckle dragging-rock. In the 70’s and 80’s we were taught that pop and rock music could be an elevated art form, that it can be complex, that it can have dignity, that it can reach for something outside of the 3 chord “let’s rock out” ideal of The Rolling Stones or any of the horrible grunge era bands. This album was a “FUCK YOU” to this movement of young men with bands who were ignoring those lessons of the 70’s and 80’s. I am from the orchestra and I am a real musician and I made damn sure that this album, and every thing I have ever done not sound as if from some mediocre gen-x slacker. I am not that. I have good hair and nice shirts and a family name that deserves more than some follower of whatever the trend of the day happens to be.
It’s Heavy In Here is now available via Lo-Fidelity Records’ page on Bandcamp as a download, compact disc, and limited edition vinyl LP. Special thanks go to Eric Matthews for speaking with Popdose, and to Jeffrey Kotthoff at Lo-Fidelity for facilitating conversations.