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Testify - Joe Mathlete talks Excalibur (Part 1)

Submitted by RamonLP4 on August 9, 2011 – 12:01 amOne Comment
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Joe Mathlete

Sometimes you pick up an album and it’s so lovingly packaged that you can just tell that the maker is trying to tell you it’s important. With its great cover and exhaustive inserted booklet, The newest album by The Mathletes, Excalibur, is one such album. Drop the needle and you’ll understand why Joe Mathlete went the extra mile with this one. Sure, The Mathletes haven’t lost their sense of melody, wit, or youthful charm but underneath all the catchy tunes and ear-grabbing DIY-meets-studio production is quite a bit of serious business about life, relationships, heartbreak, insecurities, and a whole lot more. It’s The Mathletes grow-up album and, as such, it has a deeper resonance than anything they have released since. We sat down with Joe Mathlete to discuss the album and ended up with a kind of track-by-track director’s commentary. In today installment Joe discusses the record, its themes, and side one.

FPH – Mathlete records are usually pretty fun affairs. You have things like robots and unicorns and all this childish stuff but, with this record, things get a little heavy. You’ve got a lot of serious emotional stuff going on here dealing with relationship issues, insecurities, and similar themes. Why the change in tone?

Joe – Well, those elements were always there. I just used to coat things with a layer of unicorns, robots, and childish metaphors but a lot of kids stories can be really depressing if you look at them on a different level. I was a lot more insecure about putting that stuff out there as directly so I’d use analogy to lighten it up. I guess, as I grow up, I’m more OK with peeling back the layers.

Excalibur started as a double album that had 30 songs on it but that was a big sprawling thing and then I didn’t want to bankrupt Bubba, Steve, and Rob. Also, a double album from a band nobody…well, it was a dumb idea. You know that idea when you are sculpting? Just take away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. I just did that with the material and I didn’t know what I was going to end up with but these were the songs that made sense for what I wanted to present.

Excalibur

FPH – I was chatting with Jenny [Westbury] about the album and she said that her track was recorded a few years ago. So this isn’t something that was conceived and recorded in one shot. Some of these songs go back a ways, don’t they?

Joe – Well the oldest song come from, gosh…the basic melody comes from 2001 or 2002. The majority of these songs I wrote after we broke-up the third or fourth time. After that show at Mango’s, I didn’t know what I was gonna do so I went back to the 4-track and I started making songs that way. “Chivalry 2000” was one of those songs, “Spin My Wings” was from two songs I mashed up…about half the songs were like that. A lot of them just didn’t seem ready to be put out until now.

FPH – There are a lot of keyboard and guitar tones that remind me of the feel of a Brian Eno’s Another Green World. What do you do for your keyboard sounds?

Joe – It’s just regular Casio, Yamaha, Korg…you know, the stuff you can buy at Target or Toys R Us but I process them…what do you call them? Treatments! Like when I lived with Amye [McCarther], Will Adams and Heath [Flagtvedt] would leave their guitar pedals over a lot so I would run a Casio with a Holy Grail or a Fuzz Pedal. I love the sound of a keyboard through a distortion pedal – the different tones and vibrations you can get. I fuck around with that stuff all the time. I never worry, when I record or write songs, how we can translate them live so I don’t have to sit down and write down all the settings. I just want to get whatever the coolest sound I can get is for the recording and I’ll probably never be able to reproduce it again.

FPH – Spin My Wings…

Joe – That’s Jaime of Giant Princess on drums. Ghormeh Sabzi, the band we’re in together with Cameron Bina…we were recording an album last summer over at Cameron’s house. Diego of Giant Princess was recording it and I came in saying, “Hey, I have some songs. Cameron’s off doing his thing…” So I kind of snuck in and got to do a session with them.

That’s kind of the thesis song of the album. I’m obsessed with cycles where things come around. We keep making the same mistakes in life and we keep getting into patterns. It’s all about how things are going to change and they are going to get better but that means they are going to get worse again after they get better. I guess it’s the idea that you make enough mistakes long enough, the same way and eventually you kind of figure out the solution but sometimes…There’s a line in there (“the Autumn air is like a tourniquet / I haven’t earned it yet”), like you get used to the air conditioning and then Autumn comes around and the weather is great, but with Autumn comes that kind of gloom and the days get shorter. I sit at home inside and there is something in me that doesn’t want to go outside sometimes so I think “It will just fix everything if I can just get the fuck up and walk outside but…I’m not there yet.” It’s a call to introverted, depressive arms.

FPH – Good Advice Bad Advice for Romantics Who Think Too Much…

Joe – Well that’s about it isn’t it? “There’s a million folks to kill your dreams before you even have a chance to have them.” That’s the good advice. When you have a passion for something out of the ordinary, you need to know how the odds stack against you. Most people think the things other people love are really silly. As an artist, it’s good to know that.

The bad advice comes like…”give it up or you are going to self-destruct” or “you fly too high, you fly too low,” or “if you are not what you are supposed to be then you are done – you are fucked.” That’s the bad advice. I don’t really think that’s true. I think you’re supposed to do whatever the fuck you are supposed to do. But you should know that if you go off and do your own thing, and that thing is not what’s expected of you, there’s a whole world out there that’s pretty sure you’re going to fail.

FPH – Chivalry 2000….That’s a funny one.

Joe – I’m glad you think it’s funny. Yeah, I think it’s the funniest song I’ve ever written. There is actually a Chivalry 1000 that we recorded for the next record. That’s a song that was about something that, at the time, I wished I’d said to somebody and I’m really glad I didn’t now. It’s something very out of character for me. But I just wanted some kind of 50’s gang rumble at the sock hop sort of thing. I hate seeing guys treat girls like dicks and the way dudes talk about girls behind their back so I wanted to do one…pretending to be the alpha male but there is also the tongue-in-cheek thing where it’s just puffing yourself up.

FPH – OK my favorite song on the album, Elephants and Hummingbirds. I love it on so many levels and, by the way, it’s funny to hear Jenny Westbury curse.

Joe – (laughs) Yeah, there is a version with me singing it where “shit” is a lot more prominent than her version. She wasn’t uncomfortable with it but the style was definitely her own. I wrote that when I was in a pretty prolonged shit period of my life and realizing that you have to pick things up and get excited about being alive and making progress. It’s probably the song with the most musicians - Brianna on violin, Ryan played trumpet, and Jeff on drums. Jenny…there was just no question who was going to sing that song. “Elephants and Hummingbirds” goes back to the animal metaphors. I’ve been in love situations where it kind of hits like that. I’ve actually have a lot of songs called “Elephants and Hummingbirds” dating back years and years.

FPH – That’s When I Reach For My Culture.  By the way, I love the cascade of guitars and keyboards on here.  I think this is the one that sparked the Eno comparison in my head.

Joe – Well the title is a Mission of Burma joke; “When I hear the word culture/That’s when I reach for my revolver.” I kind of thought the opposite. When things get serious, I want to dive into art and lose myself in creation and I know a lot of people like that. I kind of feel that if shit came down, like a war in big heavy times, I probably wouldn’t be a person to take up arms. I’d probably be like “Fuuuuuuuck it, where’s my guitar!” and I’d write some songs and wait for someone to kill me. I dunno, I spend a lot of time in my head.

I had a lot of fun getting sounds for this one. It was co-written with Ryan Goodland, the longest-serving Mathlete who isn’t me… He came up with that Of Montreal/Flaming Lipsy baseline. Then I played every keyboard and guitar I had through every delay and reverb pedal I could borrow. Thank you for saying Another Green World. Holy crap I love that album.

FPH – Majesty In a Vacuum

Joe - This one’s… This is kind of a strange song, I guess. You ever see a quiet person, they never talk to you or anybody else, always sit in the corner, maybe they even seem a little rude? Shy to where it seems rude, what a terrible feeling for an introvert… If you haven’t been there you might not give a shit about this album. I just imagined someone like that, who leads a rich and beautiful inner life that nobody would ever know, suddenly releasing everything wonderful she’d ever had bottled up inside her and exploding into a rainbow or a supernova, taking out everybody around her in a burst of light. It kind of sounds like a Sonic the Hedgehog song. Not the best song on the album.

FPH - Context Ruins Everything…I think this is the sweetest song on the album.

Joe - The oldest song on the album. I’ve tried for years to get this right. I’m not completely happy with the way this one turned out. I’m never happy with what I do after I do it, that’s why you always have to make more. It’s another fable song I guess. For years I worked on this… opera, or concept album or some other dumb thing called The Secret Science, all these connected songs about religion and love and the end of the world. I never finished it but this was connected to that. There’s an idea that the moon was formed when an asteroid hit the Earth and broke of a chunk that ended up in its orbit, and I always liked how that might tie in with Adam and Eve. And also the solar system is a great metaphor for unrequited love - the moon loves the earth, the earth loves the sun, the sun’s a complicated motherfucker. And with all that cosmic stuff… If the moon can’t be with its true love, how could I not feel lucky to find someone? Pretty cheesy.

End of Part I

(Go to Part 2 )

Saturday, August 13 – The Mathletes vs. Houston Record Release Show, featuring The Mathletes, Giant Princess vs. Babyshowers, B L A C K I E vs. The Wiggins, Keith Reynolds vs. The Sparkle Ponies, Hearts of Animals vs. Christopher Cascio, & Fishboy @ Fitzgerald’s

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