Name: Matt Evans
Occupation: Percussionist, Sound Artist
Current Release: New Topographics on Whatever's Clever Records.
Recommendations: I’ll share one artist directly— Devra Freelander’s work is incredibly important to me. She was my partner and a huge inspiration over the last few years before we tragically lost her in a bike accident last summer. Devra was an eco-feminist sculptor who made work that explored themes of climate change and geology from a millennial lens. Her sculptures are massive vibrant uncanny objects depicting natural phenomenon like sunsets and mountain ranges, mediated through a digital lens. Her work holds an enormous empathic weight regarding her personal processing and optimism towards experiences of existential unknowns and radiates with light, positivity and joy. Check out her work at www.devrafreelander.com.
If you enjoyed this interview with Matt Evans, check out his website, which acts as a portal into his unique world of music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started recording music when I was in undergrad in Ohio. I was studying classical music in school, percussion performance, and got really into playing avant garde / conceptual compositions, John Cage’s and Steve Reich’s stuff for example— and that was my way in. Simultaneously I was eating up a ton of indie and experimental music and going to a lot of DIY basement shows in Columbus. The scene was really cooking, tons of bands coming through and lots of people in the community making amazing work (this was like 2006-2010). There was something about music academia that had me thinking I wasn’t really supposed to be “writing” my own music, I felt like I should just stay focused on learning “repertoire,” but I always found myself improvising in the practise room.
Somewhere during all this I got really deep into this So Percussion record “Amid the Noise,” and it felt like the first thing I heard that gave me permission to make music with the tools I understood. It broke down the barrier for me. Vibraphones, drumkits, synths— it wasn’t songs and it wasn’t compositions— but it had this experimental core. I could hear the discovery in it.
By the last year of undergrad I was starting to record ideas on a zoom recorder and stacking a bunch of long takes in Garage Band, cutting them up and collaging them together into abstract tracks and putting them on Soundcloud. At the same time I started writing “compositions” for friends in the music department using graphic scores and experimenting with other alternative notation systems.
Music was always something that made sense to me and I could spend hours a day in a practise room. I didn’t think much about it back then, I just did it because I felt it.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I went through years of making scores that looked like Morton Feldman or David Lang and recording tracks that attempted to sound like Aphex Twin or Oneohtrix Point Never. I also learned and embodied a lot of rep studying music in an academic environment for 6 years. I was performing Xenakis, Cage, Reich, and Lang when I was in school and those compositional languages seeped their way into how I found myself improvising. I felt fluent in these languages.
A big part of developing my own “voice” has been taking all that inspiration and finding ways to translate it and abstract it from its original position. Translating it to different instruments, or different contexts. I still make music that feels like a copy, but there are so many levels of abstract replacement, that now I’m the only person who can sense the source. For me, copying and learning are ways to collect tools, steeping them inside my subconscious until they eventually surface with a personal sheen.
The other point for translation is trying to translate cross medium, that’s been a big part of defining my own language. Trying to emulate conceptual artists / visual artists / dancers and sculptors in my work gives me a chance to have a focused goal in communication but remains a space to create within my own dialogue. I’ve always thought a lot about the physical aspect of sound, how it exists in space and how it can be manipulated in ways more similar to physical form than just in a musical way. Therefore, to expand the breath of my work I’m always trying to read and learn new perspectives and learn to speak these languages through my tools and aesthetic intuition.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I didn’t know how to record music when I was younger and had to learn by ear. I took some audio engineering classes when I was in school but nothing too deep, and I never had any practise in a proper studio. Also, when I started composing and producing I thought I had to “know” what I wanted. As I’ve continued making things, I’ve come to realise that intuition and “play” are much more important than “knowing”. It’s best to let go and follow a feeling, judging it later. Feeling something out. And with that in mind, I’ve gotten better at trusting my ear throughout the whole process.
On this latest record “New Topographics,” I recorded and mixed it all myself, which I’ve never done. It was fun, some hurdles of course, learning the studio flow, bumping into my limitations pretty often, but once I got a handle on my capabilities, I could dial in every sound exactly how I wanted without having to explain it. Ears only. This way, I could excavate sounds or manipulate a recording until it revealed its state of being.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I continue to work in a pretty barebones way, but I’ll re-iterate that my first “studio” was Garage Band and like, a zoom recorder. I would just record long takes on the zoom and dump them onto my computer and then collage them together. My process is still pretty similar, but my set up has evolved to have a better flow (ha!) so, if something strikes me, I can respond quickly in the moment. I’m also interested in how an effect can become a language, like its own instrument, so I’ve slowly catalogued different ways to “play” plug-ins and effects so that the production elements live and breathes like a performance. It’s been helpful to abstract my sounds this way so that I can keep my number of instruments contained but still have a large sonic vocabulary. Most important gear is having a comfortable chair.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Everything can be an instrument, you just have to learn / unlearn how to use it.
Regarding technology— I learn the logic of a tool and try and amplify what it does best within its context. I try to find what it wants to do naturally, “in the wild”. Then I try to distort it, looking for ways to “hack” it so it confuses its own logic. And finally, I learn the language that translation, that relationship of natural context to distorted context. Following this pathway of learning and contorting technologies promotes a necessary sense of discovery for me, an excavating of ideas from the tools.
Humans excel at feeling and being imperfect whereas machines excel at perfecting systems and providing information without a value judgement. I love defining the character of systems— I actually experience different logical processes similarly to one might “feel” the quality of a chord (major / minor). But logics, on their own, feel cold and impersonal; they have to be united with pathos. Finding the humanity in a system, or manually un-perfecting a machine learned logic gives it an organic quality. Eventually, I have to make decisions from a perceptual realm; feeling what’s available and determining its expressive ability.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
My instruments are a huge “co-author” in my music. I gather sounds and objects, get to know their personality, and find ways to bring them together. Every drum, gong, bell, and keyboard becomes an integral part of the compositional world building.
Making “New Topographics” was also collaboration with the Pioneer Works studio. The shipping container sized recording studio where I recorded everything is the second level of a three-story architecture in the backyard of the Pioneer Works arts complex, an old iron works factory in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The studio is compact, big enough for my gear and maybe a couple of people. I set up my instruments on day one and I just tracked everything I did, day in and day out, starting with a goal or a game like, “I want to make something with this particular chord” and then I’d hit record and play around. Maybe a half hour later, I’d find myself deep in an idea’s evolution that was starting to feel complete and I could note it and go back to it.
With material tracked, I could focus on collaging everything together, and colouring the sounds with the seemingly endless plugins on the studio machine. I ended up mixing the record there while I was recording it, to really dial in every aspect of each sound, each track. The limitations of the space ended up defining the minimal and intimate nature of these recordings.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration has always really fed me and, in some ways, is the whole reason I started making work in the first place— for the chance to get in a room and make music with other inspiring people, whether it be a band or a cross disciplinary crew.
True collaboration is an intimate space to dig into another artists practise and share a creative space, following how ideas and intuitions bounce back and forth. Really good collaboration is finding a previously unknown common space between independent practises, and that requires vulnerability and trust. When it’s done right, you uncover a common language, and find a mind-meld between ways of thinking— it’s close to mind reading if you do it for long enough. It’s a really beautiful thing. I play in a band called Tigue where we’ve all known each other since we were 18 and there’s a beauty and virtuosity in how we relate to each other / find space for each other and create a collective sensibility and being-ness.