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Matt KeatingIn the second half of last year, the all-too-eclectic Poptones label delivered stellar albums from two established American songwriters amid an avalanche of underdeveloped newcomers. With the West Coast ably represented by Ken Stringfellow's 'Touched' (see interview in CwaS#9), responsibility fell upon the shoulders of Matt Keating to prove New York could still deliver a considered alternative to The Strokes' retro-rock. 'Tiltawhirl', his fourth full length and first since 1997's 'Killjoy,' is also his finest, ironically left to languish unpromoted while The Swedish Strokes (aka The Hives) do their best to revive the ailing Poptones fortune. Without succumbing to power pop or alt.country idioms, Keating is a songsmith who values a great hook almost as much as an articulate turn of phrase, qualities found in abundance on 'Tiltawhirl'.
How does a songwriter survive for four years without having a record out? How does he fill his time?
by Matt Dornan / pictures by Harriet Wills
Oh... taking care of my daughter and, uh, writing songs. I've been doing it long enough that I expect ebbs and flows. But, yeah, there are times when you're like 'four years ago at this time I was touring and playing my songs for everybody and now I'm pushing my daughter through the park.' But it was nice. It was a nice break from that kind of life.
You've said you wrote some forty songs for this record.
I'm writing all the time so I have lots of songs. I first went in with my producer and we compiled a list of about forty songs and then we recorded about half, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five. And then we put fifteen on the record.
And then reviewers like me tell you that's too many...
Yeah, and it's probably true but, y'know... I spent a long time on the sequencing, I always spend a long time trying on a million combinations because... I mean most people don't even listen anymore all the way through, but I do. To me it's like editing a movie, a record should have a flow to it. [With 'Tiltawhirl'] and 'Killjoy' I really worked a lot on the sequencing.
My gripe was that the amount of lyrics you put in a song means to appreciate them fully you need to concentrate and with our ever-diminishing attention spans that's not ideally suited to a long record.
It's so weird, when I'm writing a song I'm like 'I don't have enough lyrics'... like 'This song will never be finished because I don't have the fourth verse...' But I put so many words in... I listen to a lot of Dylan, so... [laughs].
I didn't notice any songs about your daughter on 'Tiltawhirl', so did you get them out of your system before recording this album?
Yeah, she was born the month 'Killjoy' came out. I did have a couple of songs about my daughter on that demo I gave you [after the demise of previous label Alias, Keating touted a seven song CD of new material, a track from which can be found on this issue's covermount CD], but they just didn't make the cut. Y'know...
Probably best to save those for the birthday parties.
The birthday parties and the outtakes.
Relationships seem to provide continued inspiration.
Definitely, I mean you write about what you're going through and most of us are in some sort of relationship. People write songs or create any expression, not to reinvent the wheel but it's a human need to express what they're going through. Some people do it on different levels. The good songwriters don't write because they're thinking 'the critics are going to say this' or 'this is going to appeal to this demographic...' they do it because they need to, because this stuff's bottled up and if they don't let it out in that way then... Artistic expression is a natural human need. If you're just thinking 'oh, I have a girlfriend' then you're gonna write 'Ooh, baby' y'know? But if you're actually in a real relationship you're going to be coming up against conflict and an endless source of material.
You mentioned Dylan earlier. The song Not Today sounds like something that Daniel Lanois would drag out for fifteen minutes rather than your sub-two minute treatment. Do you ever sit down to write a certain way, like 'I'll write this in a Bob Dylan style'?
No, that song I really like because it came at me in one 'chunk' - I'd gone to visit somebody and it was... a bad time. I came home with that line "you feel like a bullet in my head" and it came out in one sitting. Obviously there's like two chords, so it's not...
Didn't stop Dylan on 'Time Out of Mind'.
Which is a great record... And I did get influenced by those covers records he did a few years ago.
One of your trademarks is the wordplay that's an integral feature of your songs. Is that a burden for you? Do you walk around with a notepad everywhere you go?
It's weird, some people do crossword puzzles and I write songs. I pick up on things and I write them down. There's always great lyrics and great things floating around in everybody's conversation all the time and usually I just write the stuff down. I write it down and it'll trigger a stream of consciousness thing. My best songs aren't written like that, and a lot of the wordplay songs, like As Bad As It Lasts on the new record, just came in one sitting. I think in that way, lyrically. I think it's because I'm so dreadfully afraid of clichés that I twist things so that they're hopefully not clichéd.
You also leave a lot of gaps in your story songs. For instance you'll explain on stage what Jacksonville is about but, left unexplained, the listener doesn't know whether it's first person narrative or biography.
When I was writing it I didn't know who it was about. I'd seen that movie 'Dead Man Walking' so there was that bit... I just started imagining these two people, one who had committed this awful murder and the other knowing where he is, but if he's caught he's, y'know... dust. So he's trying to deal with keeping it to himself.
Karla Faye Tucker didn't keep it to herself did she? It's A Shame is a song that dates back a few years and one I've always liked but I had no idea what it was about until I saw her name on your website. I have my own views on capital punishment that may not sit well with yours, in that I'm pro-death penalty in certain circumstances.
That's okay, so when you're mistakenly convicted of murder I won't come to your defence.
In this case there was no room for doubt.
In this particular case she did it. I just thought it was interesting. It was all over the press...
It didn't get reported here, as far as I know, it was just another statistic from the US. I was more concerned about your sympathetic stance, wishing you'd known her now. I doubt you'd have like to have met her at the time.
When it first came about, I was gonna write about it from the perspective of the person she'd murdered, somehow still alive and, through their death, maybe reached another level of understanding or something. But that was too difficult. I don't really like obvious things and I like them to be open to interpretation. I like to say what it's about just so that people think. It started about something else but that was going on at the time and I found myself writing things about how I felt about it. I like the lyrics at the end where it goes "kill the killer like killers." That's my opposition to the death penalty. It's not really that they don't deserve it, but I think when we do the murder we are in no way different. We are taking a life. And the whole theory of it from that perspective is that the reason we think this person deserves to die is because they have committed murder. When you're pushing the button, you're killing another person. I thought the interesting thing about this case is that she so changed. And you can say 'oh yeah, well of course. They're gonna kill her, she finds Jesus' and all that stuff but there was something in the interview I read with her and a lot of other people who talked to her, I got this sense that... We all change. I mean I'm not the person I was ten years ago. If you killed me now you wouldn't be killing the person I was ten years ago, you'd be killing the person I am now.
I can understand that, which is why I think they should pull the switch the day of sentencing. It's down to individual cases. She blamed it all on being wasted but she travelled thirty-five miles to take these people's lives. One of them was a complete stranger. She and her pal went to steal a motorbike to teach some guy a lesson but they end up not only killing two people but the manner in which it was done... There was a shotgun in the car but she took a pickaxe and a hammer to these people, twenty-five hits per victim.
And not only that, she claimed to get 'sexual satisfaction' from it.
Call me old fashioned but I don't want that person living on my street.
No, but it was an interesting story. I mean when you read that... What are we going to write about in this world? That stuff goes on. The point that she was wasted is a big point. It's amazing to me how many crimes are due to someone being wasted. In fact it's 98% of the time...there was a story in New York about a guy who was a recovered alcoholic, he was recovering in AA and he was talking about having these nightmares about murdering people. And then it came to him that he was in a blackout and he's actually, in a drunken alcoholic blackout, gone into the house he grew up in, where his parents had beat him or whatever - there were new people living in the house - he went into the bedroom and killed them. He didn't even know but it came back as he was recovering, getting sober and talking about it in AA meetings! The other people in the meetings called the cops and told them, they arrested him and he's in prison. I mean I used to drink a lot and would drive. What if I'd hit somebody y'know and killed them? Like some 10 year old kid? And I was drunk. You know that the parents of that kid would want me dead. But by chance it didn't happen. I think it's the taking of life, that's what struck me about 'Dead Man Walking'. As they were actually [executing him] I had to walk out. They keep juxtaposing the murder they committed in this drunken, insane...whatever, with this structured, so-called rational murder of the state. And something about it freaked me out more. It's cold, lethal, Nazi-like quality.
That's because you've had time with this person, you've seen something of their personality. Their victim isn't given the opportunity to work their way into your conscience.
No I don't even think that was it. Y'know, living the rest of your life in prison, being boned up the ass for being a fuckin' wiseguy is probably more punishment than getting the easy way out. Somebody's got to commit that murder and state-condoned murder, for whatever reason, creeps me out. It hits a chord in me.
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002