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Ghost With A Machine - An Interview with Matthew Dear

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Dusted's Trent Wolbe interviews Detroit techo whiz kid Matthew Dear.

Ghost With A Machine - An Interview with Matthew Dear

TW: How did you end up hooking up with Ellen Allien for this tour?

MD: Just through my booking agency in Chicago, and Ghostly helped do some stuff and bring it all together. Just seems like a good match.

TW: Had you met her before?

MD: Just out and about on the town, in Berlin.

TW: You guys havenít done any remixes of each other, have you?

MD: Actually, weíre working on some stuff right now.

TW: What are you doing for your act this time around? Just DJing? Anything vocal?

MD: On this tour? Just DJing. Using Final Scratch, a couple of extra devices, and a computer. Itís not live or anything. Just a DJ show, and Iíll incorporate all sorts of music, because Iím playing a bit earlier, Iím playing before Ellen, so I think Iíll stick to more of a warm-up style. But I love being able to play bigger soundsystems with weirder music. And sometimes when you become the headliner, you almost feel like, crap, I gotta play the jams. Gotta kick out the jams for everybody. So this is cool.

TW: Are you just DJing strictly because youíre supporting the Audion release? Youíve been doing vocal stuff before.

MD: Iíd say so. Itís just more techno right now. Even when I was 14, a month Iíd play guitar, and the next month Iíd work on samplers. I get push and pull, and keep the balance between my organic music side and my techno music side, and I think now Iím in one of those techno phases. So Iím just trying to go as hard as a can with this, and then when I get burnt out, Iíll start playing guitar again, or singing.

TW: Thereís not a whole lot of guitar on Leave Luck to Heaven is there?

MD: Not so much, but itís based on songs about basic melodies and stuff. I kind of turn that into techno. What Iím working on now under my birth name stuff is just really guitar-based and weird experimental pop.

TW: Is it still 4/4 stuff?

MD: Some of it, yeah, itís been all over the place. I have probably 50 tracks that I donít know what to do with. Itís becoming more refined as I get closer to the finalization of it. Itís a bit dancey, but to me a lot of Talking Heads tracks are 4/4. Itís kind of like that 4/4. More experimental pop, weird disco 4/4, I guess. Itís mainly about the melody and lyrics, all that stuffÖ Itís just the next Matthew Dear album, quote unquote. I have to refer to myself that way, itís just easier.

TW: Speaking of that, I wanted to ask you, or comment and see what you thought about itÖI thought about the way you and Tadd (Mullinix) have, in the beginning of the Ghostly / Spectral stuff, that you were holding down the Spectral side of things and he was holding down the Ghostly side of things. And you both have taken on three or more names or so. And itís very similar, where with your birth name, youíre doing stuff thatís kind of more organic than others. With Audion, and for him, James Cotton, itís taking on something completely different and less melodic and more just about production. And then thereís the thing where you guys were the anchor points. You knew Sam (Valenti) before right?

MD: Yeah, about a year before the label got started.

TW: Did Tadd know him before?

MD: I think so, not so much. The labelís been in different stages. Sam put out the first record which was a track called Hands Up For Detroit, which is totally kind of a one-off experiment. Thatís when I was still focused on more house, DJ / Dance based music. Which I am now. But I hadnít found my own roots, or sound. And Sam was still thinking about the label. And then somebody knew about that, and told Tadd, who worked at a record store in town, and said, hey these guys are putting out hosue and techno. You should give some stuff to Sam Valenti. Tadd gave him a tape (this was back in the day, right between CD burners being on every computer)

TW: í96 or so? Some parallel port action?

MD: Totally. (laughs) Tadd gave him a tape with house on one side, and then the flip side was just some accidental, experimental Tadd Mullinix, Winking Makes a Face (Mullinixís first album), just crazy experimental, classically derived weird electronic music. So Sam actually heard that stuff and liked that more. And that prompted him to start changing Ghostly into a more experimental, weird listening, whatever it was label. And then the ideas of Spectral came out when I kept going techno, but Sam still wanted to do techno and dance, but he also wanted to do this other format, this other medium. So Tadd and I, I think really subconsciously, we didnít mean to do it, it just kind of happened. Sam helped build labels around us and also incorporated many other artists in the area.

TW: But you guys, do you hang out a lot?

MD: Oh I hate Tadd (laughs). Yeah of course, weíre all friends. Thatís the joy of working with Ghostly and Spectral. Iíll always know Sam as a friend before a boss or a label owner. Itís really cool to have that relationship. And the more I meet people, and the more other artists I see on the roadÖthatís really rare to have. A lot of people donít have this comfortable working relationship with their label. Theyíre almost all, itís all about me first. And these people found me, and itís my job to promote myself and my label wonít help me all the timeÖbut with Sam, itís easy. With Sam, heís like, thatís cool, wanna do that? And weíll do it. He knows me, and I know him.

TW: How old are you?

MD: 26, I believe.

TW: Itís really amazing to me that Hieroglyphic Being has kinda jumped on to the Spectral thing. People like Ed DMX, who has his own label and could put out anything on Rephlex or any number of labels whenever he wanted to. And then Mike Dykehouse, has Planet Mu or whoever he wanted to work with really. All these people are coming to this new, young American label. Itís obviously because something high-quality and fun is happening. Is there anything in particular you see about the Spectral / Ghostly family in particular thatís beyond that apparent, itís just really good techno music? What is it about the approach?

MD: Visually itís really pleasing to the eye. Maybe a lot of people just associate and feel very familiar with our artwork. Thatís what first draws people to an album or a cover if they donít know anything else about it. But I think also just what I said earlier, how I feel so comfortable with Sam and everybody, I think a lot of people can find that. We just project this image of family. Maybe people begin talking with us and they say, these guys are pretty relaxed. This isnít like your normal label where everybodyís trying to worry about royalties and cutting checks here and there. Everybody gets paid and money isnít the first thing, itís just about music and creating new bonds with people. Samís all about promoting American artists. As well as European artists. Like Peter Grummich on Spectral, and a Canadian artist like Solvent. Itís just about North America. Itís about bringing techno back home, and electronic music, and just helping people that we feel have something to show, show it. And Hieroglyphic Being, Ed DMX, a lot of people along the way that we meet, Ed DMX in the UK. But still, a lot of people maybe just feel thatÖitís hard to speak about. Sam would know more.

TW: Do you see what Ghostly and Spectral are doing as kind of a continuation of this sound, or a revival or both? Or do you even look at it like that? Hieroglyphic Being, Detroit style techno, and American techno in general. Because Hieroglyphic Being was doing it back in the early 90s, late 80s, I guess. And that to me signifies some sort of continuation of the whole thing.

MD: I know he learned under a lot of the old school heads. The Chicago scene. A lot of studios at the right time.

TW: And his stuff is old and new, and your stuff is bringing different audiences in. Thereís no way that Hieroglyphic Being would be in Rolling Stone.

MD: You never know, now. People said that about me as well. Thereís no reason for a techno artist to be in there, but it just shows that the boundaries are falling and music just becoming so readily accessible across all lines, and it doesnít matter if itís Chicago Jack-inspired or Britney Spears-inspired. People are gonna listen to it and judge it.

TW: Do you think about it being some sort of revival?

MD: I donít think so. Itís hard. I mean, when Iím in it, Iím just making music, you know. Iíve always been very honest to my inspirations, Iíve always thought of my production of just channeling a lot of music Iíve heard through my life. Anything from talking heads, David Bowie, to Adonis, old Roman Fluegel tracks on Klang out of Germany. I have so many inspirations and so many observations, that itís really hard to pinpoint what comes from what. So yeah, Iím sure in a sense itís a revival because Iím re-hashing all these things in my head that Iíve heard and maybe other people do the same. But itís not a calculated revival. We donít sit around in the Ghostly office and say, todayís mission is really to make it sound like 1987.

TW: It seems like there are a lot of labels and artists in the US doing the dance music thing, but Ghostly and Spectral seem to be taking it more seriously than anybody else. Do you think thatís true?

MD: I would hope so. Itís really hard to comment on that because Iím in it. I always wondered, what would it be like if you did become somewhat successful? You canít tell how people perceive you, and how your music is perceived. And just like I could be totally evaluate Radiohead and say this is why I like them, I canít do it about myself. But itís awesome that you notice that, because we pride our music, ourselves as being artists. Weíre not about trends. Dance music is a party. We have a party and we like to party but itís not our goal to make that image. We donít need that whole glitzy, trendy image to it. But it people wanna have that itís fine. Thatís their business. For us itís just about music. For me itís just all about whatever kind of music I feel like making that day. Iím not, my mindís way too busy to focus on one style and one specific style, one specific angle.

TW: At the same time, you look at any of the artwork for your releases, the paraphernalia, the Ghostly logo stuff, as you said earlier, the artwork is very much attractive to people. And you look at the press kit for any of the artists, no oneís smiling, its all very straightforward.

MD: (laughs) Weíre all just too shy to smile. Itís a lot easier to be mean or stern-faced. I just hate the whole, like crazyÖitís hard to describeÖI donít wanna say any band names or labels, but the whole DIY, cut-up t-shirt, that stuffís getting old too. Just the whole, letís get crazy at a photo shoot, do really silly things, thatís just not me, thatís not us. I donít think weíre boring itís just that, weíd just rather focus elsewhere. That just seems tooÖpreconceived, to think about your image that way.

TW: It just seems from looking at the site, and everything from the Ghostly update emails, fliers, everything seems very very calculated.

MD: Yeah, because we donít wanna disturb or distract anybody. The labelís just the medium for the music. The label should have aÖI mean it should have a personality, or a character, but it shouldnít be this dominating force that make your think that you can predict what the next release is gonna be. If itís on Ghostly itís gonna be a crazy funky party-slamminí track. I dunno. We just like to leave it up to the listener. The label, I think, I canít speak for Sam, but I think the label would be a holding place for all these artists, the song to come out. We donít want the label to overshadow the artist.

TW: I was gonna ask you about the artwork for the Audion 12Ēs and the Suckfish album, the artworkís very different from a lot of the other plain black sleeve stuff that comes out. Whose idea was it to do that, who did the artwork, and do you see it as being a reflection of the music?

MD: For sure. Itís very disorienting. Itís kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory, spirally. Itís definitely inspired by Ö 40ís, 50ís, likeÖBridgette Riley did a lot of stuff like that, just really, not hieroglyphic butÖwhatís the word where all the things make you lose your mind?

TW: Psychedelic?

MD: One of those little brain teasers, like where you see the third prong coming out of the thingÖ

TW: Optical illusions?

MD: Yeah, itís based on optical art, optical illusion art, with a twist. Theyíre all originally produced by Will Calcutt, whoís a really good friend of mine as well as an artist for Ghostly. He does a lot of design, heís designed things in the past and heís pretty much my right hand man. Heís done all my album covers, most of my album covers. And he did all the Audion stuff. And we just had this idea and I kinda came to him about a year and a half ago when we first started coming up with the Audion ideas, we just wanted something to be very carnivalesque and crazy, something like that and he started playing around with those optical illusion pieces and it just fit. Each (12Ē) was kind of a progression and Suckfish is kind of the big explosion. To me itís the most colorful, itís got a combination of everything. Itís just supposed to be very, the whole theme of the music and the album and the artwork is, I think it all goes very well together. Itís just really, itís about just losing your mind and being completely self-obsessed. Itís very sexual. Itís very sinful I think, but faceless at the same time. Thereís no Audion guy, you know. Iím not trying to like create this alter ego. But thereís just this feeling to it, to me at least. Itís very raw and sexual, energetic music.

TW: It definitely doesnít seem like yourself. Would you ever release stuff like that under your own name?

MD: No, just because I think it would be confusing, you know? Thatís why there are so many different aliases, because if I put out an Audion track as Matthew Dear, then people would just be like, what is this? I expect something with words, or something with more of a melody and then I got this really hard techno track. So itís good when you start dividing your different approaches to music. It makes it easier for people to grasp and label.

TW: So none of the Audion tracks have lyrics, do they?

MD: Not singing lyrics. There are a couple of weird soundscapes towards the end, some of the tracks have this kind of menacing weird voice. They use kind of this underlying character on the album, comes in every now and then.

TW: Why the titles and the sex imagery? Just a way to put a name to music like that?

MD: Again, it wasnít all calculated. Things like that, itís weird, they just kinda happen. I let my subconscious rule a lot of my art and my music. I donít try to preconceive all these plans, I didnít sit down the very first time I made an audio track and say, hey this is gonna be the album, this will be the theme. Itís just when youíre sitting around, I just let things happen and I think I made ďKisses,Ē I think that was the first track I ever made. I think I made it right around the time I made Dog Days. That shows how long Audionís just been sitting around. So I just make tracks over the course of a year, year and a half. You just start naming tracks, then all of a sudden itís like, oh! Wait a minute. I have five tracks that are sexual themed track names. Itís like, how did I do that? Was it intentional? It kinda just happens, and youíre like, wow, this does work. And then you have to think up some great bullshit story about how you tie it all together and market it as an album. (laughs)

TW: Do you want people to see it like that or do you just want them to hear it?

MD: I always want people to just hear the music, but itís just fun when you find a theme that you didnít even plan, and youíre like, whoa, there is a theme here. You have to almost convince yourself. Let me really evaluate what just happened, and it is a lot of whatís going on in my sub-psyche. Something else took over, something else came out and said Iímí gonna plan your album for you, create it, visualize it, then when itís all said and done youíre gonna really evaluate whatís going on in your life, why you actually made the album. Itís more fun like that.

TW: When youíre doing stuff for your own name, do you use the same subconscious ideology or process that you do with your stuff as Audion? With the lyrics and everything, it seems a lot more planned out.

MD: For sure. With lyrics, itís different, it is more upfront. It is more noticeable. But most of my lyric-writing has just really been free-flowing and freeform. So I havenít done too many songs in the past that are very like story-based, you know? Itís really just more about feelings and emotions and I like leaving it to the listener. Where they can say, I think the song is about this. When you add lyrics, yeah, itís gotta be more preconceived. Same thing, I just let it go. Now that Iím piecing together the next Matthew Dear album itís becoming the same process. You start sifting through tracks youíve done and youíre just like, yeah, this one feels like it goes with this one. And then that probably sounds a little better with this one, obviously isnít part of this group, so weíll throw that away and maybe use it later. Itís almost like shaking for gold, you sift thorough, and you keep the pieces together that fit. The rest of the stuff you make a new alias for and put it out next year.

TW: So you didnít think as Suckfish as an album at all?

MD: No, not really. It just kind of happened. And with the success of the singles, you start to say well hey, I could easily do an album of this. The tracks are there. And Sam says, yeah letís try an album. And you start doing the whole sifting process, go through your files, tracks, start pulling out things that sound Audion, sound like they really fit, and you start, you realize that youíve actually done an album with out really intentionally having done it, you know. It just works. Then the fun part is when you actually put Ďem all together and you get the tracklist and the track order and you really start deciding what is the album? Because I donít just sit down and say I need to write an album now. Itís backwards almost. Itís like ok, Iíve written album, now Iíll put it back together.

TW: I wanted to ask about performing andÖI guess about vocal techno and house because when people think of that, well at least I still think of Captain Hollywood project andÖ

MD: Underworld, ProdigyÖ

TW: Yeah, and stuff like that.

MD: I hope people donít see me as that. But I canít control thatÖ

TW: I know, but what do you call it? Vocal techno?

MD: Iíve resorted to ďexperimental pop music.Ē Pop to me isnít a dirty word.

TW: So you havenít resorted, itís justÖ

MD: Yeah. Some people think that pop is a bad thing. And Iíve said it before, but I think Talking Heads is pop. And the Beatles was probably the best pop music of all time, and theyíre probably the best band in the history of music, in a lot of peopleís eyes. You could even say that Nitzer Ebb is pop. It has pop elements. It maintains a melody and catchiness. To me thatís pop. And experimental pop is just blending in techniques Iíve learned through making techno and weird rock music and putting it all together. Itís just an experiment. Itís not vocal techno, itís not vocal house. People might think of it that way, but my influences are so broad that I guess I just donít bother with trying to say, well, Iím like Moby, or Iím like the Prodigy or Iím like something else.

TW: Well itís good you donít say that.

MD: But I should, maybe. Iíd reach a whole new market. (laughs)

TW: I remember specifically you played at Joeís Pub, and (the ad) said, live vocal debut. I was trying to picture when you think of people doing solo vocal performances, you think of a singer-songwriter with a guitar type thing. You donít think of someone up there with really banging music, like a lot of your stuff is. And so Iím wondering if it felt weird for you to be up there with all that sound and have people looking at you, because itís dance music.

MD: Oh exactly. Totally. It was very strange because all my live shows in the past have been, dance music is just a feeling and itís very guttural, itís more physical. And you can do a live show and rely on your computer and just play dance music and you see peoplesí reaction by them going crazy and dancing and screaming and drinking and throwing their hands in the air. And thatís like, oh cool, Iím doing a good show. But I realized the hard way that when you sing, and Iím not saying the Joeís Pub show was a best example of my vocal performance or the opposite, it was more of an experiment, letís try this and see what happens. But people at a vocal show, and since then Iíve obviously noticed it at rock shows Iíve been to, people just stand and stare. And they just cross their arms. Some people nod their head, but thatís about it. And I was like, ok, thereís a big difference here. the satisfaction response is not the same in terms of how they gauge it.

TW: What happened with your shows? At Joeís Pub, were people looking or just shaking their heads.?

MD: Joeís pub was intense, because theyíd dance a little bitÖ Iíd do some more intense songs with 4/4 kicks and all that so. People should dance. Joeís Pub was intense because it was the first one. And I think there were a few critics there and few press people.

TW: Probably all critics, all press.

MD: I mean, everybodyís a critic nowadays. I said something like these are all new songs for the next album, which is straying from my techno and getting more into rock/pop/weird whatever. And then people started writing about it afterwards, saying yeah did you hear Matt? He totally said heís never gonna make techno again, and thatís the end of techno. Thatís it. Heís just focusing on this stuff now. itís just really funny how peopleÖ

TW: Extrapolate??

MD: Yeah. They turn it around on you. I didnít think about it then. Still, it was me dipping my toes in the water to see what it felt like. It wasnít representative of what my live shows would be like in the future. I actually played a lot of stuff at that show thatís gonna be on the next album, so it was a good way to get some music out there and see what it sounded like live. Tracks that were so far removed from anything else Iíve ever worked on. It was really cool, the fact that I even got to do that. Who else just gets fto go up there and just play music that doesnít have a home, thatís not on an album, and get to sing for the first time?

TW: Was that in support of an album?

MD: No, just a one-off. Kind of for Backstroke I guess. It was a lengthy EP, about 10 songs, 9 songs. It was good to do that. I kind of feel good about it now, that I actually got to do that. Fun.

TW: Youíve gotten a lot of press with Leave Luck to Heaven, it being poppier. Do you think that any of that kind of new audience is gonna come to your Audion stuff? Do you hope they will? Do you think about that?

MD: I really donít mind. If they want to they can. The weird thing is that, I started seeing some press from Audion for the people that did press for Leave Luck to Heaven.

TW: Rock critics?

MD: Not rock critics, but Detroit Free Press just did a little review of it. And they like it. Itís like, you guys arenít supposed to be writing about this! This is for the German mags, and the DJ magazines and stuff. But since people know me already through something else, theyíll review it anyways. Music is just so varied to me. Iím not doing Audion to try to get Rolling Stone review or something. Itís different. Itís techno music, itís really techno music and I donít expect people to pick up on it like that, but if they do they do.

TW: Youíre still in Detroit now.

MD: Yes, I live in Detroit now.

TW: And you lived in Ann Arbor for a while?

MD: About 5, 6 years yeah.

TW: And youíve played here, and overseas.

MD: Yeah, New Yorkís fun, I play here a lot.

TW: Do you find you have a home town rooting for you?

MD: I get free food at every restaurant I go to (laughs). No, I think Detroit, or anyplace you go, if itís not a big city where everybodyís trying to make it, maybe people are just trying to help out a local artist, I guess. The Free Press should not be writing about Audion but they choose to, and thatís awesome. Itís great that they like to do that. Maybe if I move to Dallas theyíd do it there to. Just to help you out, you know, ďsomething coolís going on in our city.Ē But yeah, if I lived in New York or Chicago or LA Iíd probably just be another face on the radar or whatever. Nothing, they wouldnít give me any extra love or anything.

TW: When did you move to Detroit?

MD: 2 years ago.

TW: Did you go there because of music?

MD: I was playing a lot in Detroit, I had a residency there. My wife had just graduated from the University (of Detroit) and Iíd graduated (from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) and was waiting around for her. So when she was done, we were like well, youíre gonna get a job by Detroit, letís just move to Detroit. Itís a lot cheaper there. And weíd always wanted to live in a loft, weíd had that fantasy since we were 14, I think when I saw Big with Tom Hanks and saw him jumping on a trampoline in his own house, I was like, I gotta live in one of those. (laughs) So we did that and Detroitís really cheap. But now itís time to move. It was fun. Never got the trampoline, though.

TW: You can still do that when you move to Texas. So youíve been using Final Scratch exclusively on tour?

MD: Yeah. I have records too. Itís so easy to bring a hard drive about the size of your recorder here (points to interviewerís Minidisc recorder). You can fit about 800 records on that alone each. Itís a lot easier on your back and shoulders.

TW: What do you think about the 12Ē market?

MD: I dunno. Iím not very political about that kind of thing. I still buy records, I just import Ďem to my computer right after I buy them. I record Ďem. If I can get the files direct I will, but I like having a wall full of records at the same time.

TW: Do you think it affects your DJing at all?

MD: How so?

TW: For better or for worse, easier?

MD: Yeah, for better, just because selection becomes so much greater. Itís a bit weird. When you flip through records itís just so much more physical, and you can only take so many per night. You have to do your whole pre-selection, what kind of sound am I gonna go for. But when you have all your tracks to choose from, what do you do, bring your whole record collection with you? Itís a bit harder, because you have so many options to go at, and you can play anything. Itís overwhelming at some point. Itís like, man, what do I play? It can become really easy to start playing the same tracks because you know where they are and what you like, and what you keep going back to, and the records donít get worn down or anything.

TW: So youíre working on a matthew dear record? Any remixes or anything?

MD: Just a couple, the Ellen Allien thing, weíre kinda playing with some sounds, going back and forth. Maybe putting out a co-release. The Matthew Dear album hopefully comes out in March or April of í06. Maybe an EP or a new techno thing. Thatís about it right now. Start practicing with a band, gonna prepare a live show.

By Trent Wolbe

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